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Pathways to Philosophy

Metaphysics and the Problem
of Existence

by Richard Schain


The first question to be faced is whether there is such a thing as a specific problem of human existence. There are problems of survival, of security, of procreation and of power, These are challenges of living that humans share with all other creatures. Homo sapiens, however, has always exhibited a distinctive aspect to his life, conceived by Aristotle as a metaphysical need to know that is of a different order from the problems he shares with the rest of the animal kingdom. This need or problem was formulated by the painter Gauguin in three questions placed on one of his large paintings of Tahitian life. Gauguin was a remarkable writer of philosophy as well as a painter, and his letters, journals and unpublished articles deserve wider attention than confinement to scholars of art history. Freely translated (in accord with his spirit), they convey the following: Why am I here? What must I do? What can I hope for? These questions encompass the specific problem of human existence; they may be fused into the single question, "What is the meaning of my life?"

Immediately, it must be acknowledged that not all individuals are troubled with this problem to the same degree. In fact, it may be confidently asserted that it is a pressing problem for only a small minority. The vast majority of individuals only dimly recognize a problem of existence that distinguishes them from other types of living creatures. The distinctive metaphysical problem of human existence has always been the concern of the few. The semi-mythical Heraclitus is said to have referred to them as hoi oligoi, superior beings were few in number. This type of intellectualism elitism has often been adopted by philosophically-minded thinkers seeking to comprehend their isolation in the world.

The many who do not feel this problem can be separated into three categories: utilitarian materialists, religious believers and those committed to scientific values. The materialists are by far the largest group of those who are largely oblivious to the metaphysical problem of existence. These are the practical members of society who are responsive to the material problems of daily living. They are the stalwarts of civilized life who provide for themselves, their families and their communities. They judge their success in life by their accomplishments in the here-and-now of social existence. Intimations of mortality may be troublesome at times but, by and large, they are not transformed into awareness of the specifically human problem of existence.

Religious believers are those for whom the problem of existence has been answered by a religious faith. For Christians, the adherence to traditional Christian beliefs and practices answers the question of the meaning of their life. Religious believers may be materialists as well in the sense that this term is defined above but with the additional dimension of a metaphysical element expressed as a relationship to God or some surrogate figure. The nineteenth century conviction that the age of science would do away with religious dogma has not turned out to be correct. Religious institutions are flourishing at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Finally, we come to those who do not recognize a metaphysical problem of existence because they espouse a scientific or scholarly way of thought. These are the scientific specialists, scholars, Gelehrten, and all like-minded types who have dominated philosophy for the past two centuries. For them, the problem of existence has become a matter of cognitive science to be answered through analysis of the brain-mind problem, using techniques borrowed from neurophysiology, linguistics and computer science. The problem itself is not recognized as such because all mental processes are believed — as an act of faith — to be a matter of biology. The placement of the problem of human existence on a metaphysical level is dismissed out of hand because science does not accept the metaphysical as a valid category of knowledge. These types may be labelled as "materialists of the mind" since their one article of faith is that all phenomena, mental or otherwise, are ultimately material in nature and subject to analytic investigation.

The difficulty with the approach to the problem of human existence through cognitive science is that it is never elaborated in a meaningful manner. The principal requirement necessary is to recognize its metaphysical nature. The history of civilization has shown that there is a metaphysical need running through humanity like a recurrent symphonic chord. There exists a state of mind, more precisely, a state of consciousness in which this need is embedded. No satisfaction is to be found in materialist explanations, no matter how much they may be padded with ethical theories. Yet the question of consciousness today is dominated by cognitive scientists whose only concern is to analyze it and explain how it is possible. Laborious dissections of thought, analogous to producing a Gray's Anatomy of the mind, are put forth as advances in its understanding. Cognitive scientists would like to show how consciousness is exclusively a phenomenon of the brain, thus establishing it within the framework of the materialist world view. But by now, it is evident that this will never happen — as William James predicted over a century ago in his Principles of Psychology. While consciousness is being recently more regarded as a phenomenon in its own right (e.g. John Searle), the approach to it is still analytic and value-free.


The "solution" to the metaphysical problem of existence is to be found in the values arising within the conscious mind, not in the analysis of the latter's nature. The antique Greeks are still our models in philosophy because they were concerned with values, not with analysis of the structure of the mind, which was always a secondary consideration with them. The human condition requires a value-rich metaphysics, without which human beings are merely an out-of-control animal species, on the verge of destroying the milieu in which they live. If Homo sapiens does not respond to the problem of his existence through creating a metaphysical consciousness, he becomes an abortive entity that has missed its purpose. It is not enough for him to survive in the midst of family, offices, honors or possessions, he must develop his mind as something more than a tool for dominating his social and material milieu. This reality transcends all other realities for him. However, nature has always been profligate of individuals in achieving its goals and the human species is no exception.

The process of mental maturation is dependent on experiences that make possible the deepening of consciousness, although they do not guarantee it. Experiences can be had at every level of existence, ranging from climbing Mount Everest to reading Plato. The common denominator is increasing depth of consciousness. The oracles of antiquity: "know yourself," "become what you are," "living according to one's physis," [nature] all were concerned with deepening of consciousness. A genuine philosophy concerns itself with these questions, not with the futile effort at reductionist analyses of the mind.

Two indicators of the metaphysical need of individuals are the popular appeal of religious sectarianism and "New Age" spirituality. By and large, however, one must look to his own self for metaphysical development. Experiencing a writing or a teaching is one thing, subordinating one's mind to them is another. If Christ is permitted to enter one's interior life, he should not be permitted to monopolize it. A still valid criterion for judging the value of contemporary movements is the one Socrates used in judging the Sophists — do they make money from their teaching? Philosophy and commerce are incompatible activities

Glorification of the unconscious mind, a concept first expressed by Schopenhauer and brought onto the stage of public awareness by Freud, has undermined the values of philosophy. But the unconscious mind is a contradiction in terms; if a thought is unconscious, it is not part of the mind, which necessarily implies consciousness. The emergence of a thought or idea into consciousness is a creative act of the first order that marks the nature of the human condition. To say that one is "unconsciously" aware of something is like saying a fertilized ovum qualifies as Homo sapiens. The metaphysical fact of human development is the emergence of a being possessed of consciousness. If awareness is not present in the conscious state, it forever remains in the void of metaphysical non-being.

Philosophy has to do with probing the problem of existence for those individuals who feel it to be central to their lives. What it decidedly is not is a scholarly discipline analogous to chemistry, physics or mathematics. The imprisonment of philosophy within academic structures has resulted in its disfiguration so that its nature has been radically changed. Philosophy today has been transformed into two distinct subjects; a) a subdivision of history concentrating on the study of philosophers or philosophic movements and b) a branch of theoretical psychology analyzing the nature of cognition. Both of these are topics deserving of a certain amount of study but they are not philosophy. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, it is a desire for metaphysical knowledge that is meaningless in the context of objective scientific methodology. Scholars are not philosophers and philosophers not scholars, although there may be some overlap as, for example, a neurologist having some knowledge of the electrician's craft. But as one does not look to electricians for models of what it is to be a neurologist, so one cannot look to scholars for models in philosophy.

Philosophical activity can be regarded as a sign of nature transcending its biological limits. If this be mysticism, to paraphrase the American revolutionary hero Patrick Henry, then opponents are free to make the most of it. The hallmarks of the philosopher are metaphysical intelligence, strength of mind and independence of the societal milieu. There are many such figures from the antique world but perhaps the most interesting is the semi-mythical figure of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Virtually nothing is known of his life, but his writings reveal a personality who meets the criteria given above. "I searched out myself" may be taken as the guiding principle of philosophy and the password to the philosophic life. The polar opposite of the philosopher is the scholar who searches out the paraphernalia of history in order to arrange them according to his inclinations. The antique world had its models in this area also but they were clearly distinguished from philosophy.


The problem of existence arises from the self and its solution comes from the same source — the enlargement of consciousness that is the outcome of searching into it. However... there is a painful aspect to this search. The self that is the key to a metaphysical universe is also a function of physical being and is dependent on physical processes for its development. There is no escaping the physical world or the mortality that is its consequence. One cannot develop without the five senses and a functional brain, all of which are subject to decay and death. The moving finger writes and then writes no more. The metaphysically developed ancients regarded reconciliation with death as an essential element of philosophy. The problem of existence has to reconcile metaphysics with the fact of one's mortality

From the time of the Pharoahs, powerful individuals have tried to erect monuments and create entities that were meant to perpetuate their existence. Christianity invented the idea of resurrection to evade the perceived finality of death. On a more modest scale, there is the idea that generational continuity continues one's existence or, even more modestly, that this is accomplished through influences and memories initiated during life. Nevertheless, the tragedy of the disappearance of every vital self from the extant world remains a reality to be faced by all, especially philosophers. The miracle of the creation of a living mind reaches its end. Biological death has to be directly faced and apprehended.

But there is a metaphysical way of apprehending individual existence; It is a shame to think and feel as if Kant never revealed the relativity of time and space. The latter are pseudo-dimensions erected by the mind as a practical affair in order to orient oneself amidst the chaotic quality of being. An individual's existence is a permanent fact that cannot be abolished because it seems to be terminated by the passage of time. One exists in eternity, Development of this awareness is a joyous feeling as was poetically recorded by Nietzsche. Although it is impossible to escape entirely the instinctual demand to perceive life as existing in a space-time continuum, it is possible to become aware of the relativity of these dimensions and come to a more profound appraisal of one's place in the universe. What has been created cannot become uncreated. The only possible reason for the incredible complexity of life processes is the meaningful creation of an individual. Meaning implies existence in eternity. Otherwise. "it is just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

St. Augustine wrote that the only two problems of philosophy were God and the soul, but it is quite appropriate to remove God from this list. The unique phenomenon of metaphysics is the development of an individual consciousness. The problem of human existence is to make this development occur. Analytic thought is a movement away from this process, albeit it may be necessary for controlling the physical elements of one's existence. It is a loss to abdicate direction of this development to institutions of any type as spontaneity of thought is the sine qua non of metaphysical knowledge. The opposite of this knowledge is not error but ignorance, obtuseness, cowardice or shallow materialist thinking.

The creation of values is the special sign of a metaphysical consciousness. Every person is guided by values, the question is whether they are created or obtained second hand. The best way of judging an individual is to ascertain the nature of his values. There is no reason to shrink from this judgement, it is far better than judgements based on race, ethnicity, religion or even behavior. It is impossible to live without values, but to live fully one must create his own. Otherwise one is a puppet of society or an animal left to his primitive instincts.

The concept of metaphysics has been held in bad repute throughout the age of science. Paul Tillich, who is one of the most important of twentieth century metaphysical philosophers, felt constrained to abandon the word entirely in favor of ontology. However, its meaning in his writings is the same. Nietzsche, whose entire life and works were dedicated to metaphysical values, refused to accept the term, preferring to think of himself as a psychologist and devotee of "Wissenschaft' (science in its broadest sense). For him, metaphysics meant belief in God, heaven, hell, immortality, and mendacious religious dogmas. But he understood the importance of the soul even if he criticized the Christian concept of it. The idea "reverence for the soul" comes from Nietzsche, not Albert Schweitzer. The inescapable fact is that the idea of a metaphysical self or soul is more in accord with the phenomena of Homo sapiens than are the dogmas of a scientific neurology.

We who live in the shadow of the overpowering forces of scientific technology can hardly be capable of assessing their impact upon ourselves. Sartre was correct in his thought that there is no escape of the individual from the situation in which he finds himself. Our qualities and values are enormously determined by it. But the image and the ideal of the metaphysical self can still be brought into consciousness and valued more highly than they are today. The metaphysical need can be acknowledged without violating one's intellectual conscience and can be rigorously pursued in full accord with the facts of existence. Philosophy is the name given to the effort to live up to this high aspiration.

© Richard Schain 2003

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